A green limo is no stretch

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood wants Y Fray.

Leonardo DiCaprio has arrived at awards night parties with her. So have Oscar winners Steven Spielberg and Charlize Theron. Jake Gyllenhaal has been seen all around town with her.

When Al Gore, among filmdom’s newest stars, comes to L.A., Fray sometimes is the first person he sees.

But Fray isn’t an A-list star or a big-time agent. She owns Eco- limo, a Santa Monica-based limousine service that combines privilege with environmentalism.


When she or one of her drivers pulls up to the door, the limo isn’t a super-elongated Caddie or tricked-out Hummer. It’s a gasoline-electric hybrid or a vehicle fueled by walnut oil and reconstituted chicken fat. Ecolimo exclusively uses cars that are seen as environmentally friendly.

“Other limousine drivers laughed at me when I first showed up at events,” said Fray, 48, who started the service in late 2004 with a single Toyota Prius hybrid. “They aren’t laughing anymore.”

Ecolimo is on the move. Fray, who shortened her first name from Yvette to a single letter in the 1970s, has nine vehicles, including two in her newly opened San Francisco branch.

She employs eight full-time drivers and takes turns at the wheel herself. She has her sights on expanding to Washington and New York -- places where green isn’t guaranteed to translate into gold.

Fray’s operations are relatively small but get noticed in the highly competitive chauffeured limousine business, in which low gas mileage has practically been a badge of honor.

It’s not just Hollywood hotshots who are using her service but also executives in other industries who want to travel in eco-style.

On a recent day, Fray’s first client was Steve Miller, the owner of a Beverly Hills business that provides administrative services for physicians. He was waiting in front of his hilltop home in the Santa Clarita Valley as Fray arrived at dawn.

Behind him in the driveway was his own vehicle: a black Hummer H2.

“I love my Hummer,” said Miller, settling into the back seat of an Ecolimo bio-diesel as Fray, dressed in a dark limo-driver’s suit, held the door. “But this balances out my life.”

He wasn’t exactly slumming. The alternative-fuel car Fray was driving was a four-door Mercedes -- a former fleet vehicle that she bought used. It didn’t provide the legroom of a Lincoln Town Car, the standard in the industry, but there was no shortage of the niceties that go with a chauffeur service. Waiting for Miller in the back seat was a cup of coffee, just the way he liked it. There was also bottled water (in biodegradable bottles) and a selection of the day’s newspapers.

“This is a traditional car service,” said Fray, who has worked as a professional chauffeur on and off since 1985, “in untraditional cars.”

That has caused problems beyond the ridicule of other limo drivers.

Last year, when Fray was taking Theron to a party after an awards event, a West Hollywood sheriff’s deputy wouldn’t let her park her Prius with the other limos.

“I told him this was a limo, but he said, ‘No it’s not.’ Then Charlize screamed from the back seat, ‘This is a limo!’

“The sheriff looked back there to see who yelled. He let us park.”

A spin with Ecolimo allows Hollywood figures to be environmentally correct in public even if that’s not the case in their private lives.

Ricky Strauss is the president of Participant Productions, the company that co-produced the hit global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which featured Gore. Strauss and others in the company took an Ecolimo bio-diesel sport utility vehicle to the Academy Awards in March.

“If everyone started using a bio-diesel SUV, it would make a big difference,” Strauss said. “Frankly, it’s about doing what we can.”

Strauss’ own car, however, is an Audi, a sporty German brand that is a favorite in Hollywood.

“But I live only five minutes from the office,” he said, “and only fill up once a month.”

Sports cars are just a drop in the bucket. The film and television industry is a major polluter, annually spewing 140,000 tons of waste from trucks, special effects and other sources into the Greater Los Angeles atmosphere, according to a UCLA study released in November. Although exact comparisons weren’t available, experts said that these emissions probably made the entertainment business the second-worst industrial polluter in the area, trailing only petroleum refineries.

Even so, going eco-friendly at events has become a trend among Hollywood figures, said Sara McLean, publisher of Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation magazine.

“They might not drive an ecological car on their own time,” McLean said, “but when they are seen at an event, they want to be branded as cool.”

Ecolimo also gets business from people who want to impress the environmentally minded in the industry. Weather Channel executive Marla Hoppenfeld took an Ecolimo car to oversee a video shoot at the home of eco-activist Laurie David.

“I wasn’t about to show up in a town car,” Hoppenfeld said.

David, who is married to “Seinfeld” creator Larry David, was delighted. “I believe in peer pressure,” said the activist, who owns a Prius but also uses Eco- limo.

“There are people who don’t valet their car when they have lunch with me. They don’t want to be standing there with me when their SUV pulls up.”

Fray takes care of some of the inconveniences associated with going eco. After dropping Miller off, she sought out one of the few area service stations that dispense bio-diesel fuel.

The closest was about a half-hour away at a crowded Pacific Palisades car wash that can be exited only by a narrow alleyway if the car isn’t washed.

Then comes the next appointment. Spielberg’s office calls, asking her to pick up a visitor at entertainment mogul David Geffen’s Malibu home for a ride to Los Angeles International Airport.

Indeed, the vast majority of her business comes from rides not to flashy events but to mundane venues such as LAX. It’s those everyday uses of the service by her most loyal customers -- including Gyllenhaal, Laurie David and the environmental organization Global Green -- that help keep her afloat in a notoriously perilous industry.

In 2005, Fray’s revenue was about $110,000. Last year, it was nearly $600,000. But her debt has grown too, hitting about $250,000.

To save money, Fray lives with her mother. Her office is a tiny room off a basement garage.

Ecolimo’s rates, which are comparable to those of other limousine companies, vary by vehicle. The basic cost of being chauffeured in a Prius is $45 an hour; in the Mercedes it’s $65. To these charges she adds 29%, which includes a gratuity for the driver. Customers are free to tip more.

Every year, about a third of limousine companies fail, according to McLean, the trade magazine publisher. Fray’s first attempt to establish her own limo service in the mid-1990s ended in Bankruptcy Court.

Some major limousine services have recently added a few hybrids and alternative-fuel cars to their fleets, but Fray’s strength lies in her brand.

“You go through the Rolodex and you see Ecolimo and it stands out,” McLean said. “This gal has found a nice little niche, especially in a place with a lot of celebs.”